God keeps his children through midlife crises by empowering them to keep fighting to be kept.
How we respond to temptation this week will affect the spiritual life of someone we know. Every time we choose to sin, the tentacles of that decision crawl, often imperceptibly at first, into the precious hearts and lives of those we love. In the same way, holiness is wonderfully contagious, wreaking blessing in every direction, often quietly below the surface of what we can see.
If we could see all the subtle effects of our obedience (and sin), we would be even more motivated to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–13). What if we could see everything that happens in our child’s mind and heart when we love our wife with strength, tenderness, and conviction? What if we could see our neighbors’ thoughts when they see us loving our children with patience, sacrifice, and loving discipline? What if we knew the ripple effects in our church of the creative and intentional ways we’re caring for lost neighbors? We simply cannot see even a fraction of what God does when we love one another well.
Our personal holiness — how well we love God and others — carries the stunning power to enliven the souls of others, or to deaden them. He gives us a stunning power in this fallen world: the ability to refresh the human heart.Hearts Need to Be Refreshed
God addresses this powerful dynamic in the 25 short verses of Philemon. The apostle writes to his friend to advocate for Onesimus, a bondservant who fled Philemon and may have stolen money from him (Philemon 18). While I believe Paul was laboring, even in this very short letter, to undermine and eventually overthrow slavery, I will not address that here (but encourage you to read others who have). What caught my attention were five words in Paul’s heartfelt appeal:
Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20)
First, the plea is uncomfortably direct — a command even. Paul commands Philemon to refresh the apostle’s heart in Christ, to invigorate his love for the Lord. Second, Paul is commanding Philemon to do something he cannot do — at least not alone. This kind of refreshment cannot be controlled or manipulated by man (John 1:12–13; Ephesians 2:8–10). If he refreshes anyone’s heart in Christ, God must do it. Third, the command reveals a wonderful and mysterious reality: our communion with Christ genuinely leans on other people.
Even an apostle needed others to stoke his love for God. You and I have the power to refresh hearts — and we have the need for our hearts to be refreshed by someone else.How to Refresh a Heart
How, more specifically, could Philemon refresh Paul’s heart in Christ? What was Paul really asking him to do? He states himself clearly: “Receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (Philemon 1:17). How Philemon loved Onesimus would ripple beyond Onesimus to Paul, and then through Paul to countless others. In the previous verse, he clarifies how he hopes Onesimus will be received: “No longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).
Philemon, when you might be justified to seek retribution, I want you to welcome your brother with scandalous affection. When you could turn him over as a criminal, I want you to offer him something even deeper than friendship.
You can feel Paul’s heart being refreshed by the very idea of Philemon responding this way — a response the world could not explain. What if he forgave him, and with nothing in return? What if instead of treating Onesimus worse than before, he treated him far better — like his own beloved brother? What if the new bond between these two men were another seed that helped to bring down slavery? What if Philemon’s lost neighbors, appalled by his patience and forgiveness, received Christ in the light of his witness? How marvelous Jesus Christ would look on that day.
Paul let his heart enjoy, for a moment, the unfolding possibility of that mind-blowing scene — of all that Christ might do through this one startling act of obedient mercy — and then he asked Philemon to make it true: “Refresh my heart in Christ.”How to Stifle a Heart
When Paul says, “Refresh my heart in Christ,” he could have pled the opposite: “Please don’t stifle my heart by abandoning Christ.” Paul knew what it felt like to expect refreshment and receive betrayal.
Paul mentions his friend Demas in this very letter: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers” (Philemon 1:23–24; also Colossians 4:14). Only a few short years later, Demas deserted him — and in a time of serious need.
Later Paul writes to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:9–10). Paul needed Timothy, and soon, because Demas had suddenly abandoned him. Surely Demas wasn’t the first. When Paul pled with Onesimus to refresh his heart, he knew the agony of having professing believers betray his trust and renounce the faith.
When he had the power to refresh Paul’s heart, Demas walked away. He chose earthly pleasure and comfort over bearing the cross of costly love. We will face the temptation to do the same — to retreat back into the world when Christ asks more of us in love.A Hundred Hearts Are Yours
One way Satan tempts us into lovelessness is by convincing us that the consequences are few, insignificant, and confined. He wants us to think that no one else’s life will really be affected by our decisions. You can almost hear him whispering, “How much damage could this little sin really cause, anyway?”
When you’re tempted to be unkind with your spouse or impatient with your children, when you’re tempted to indulge a lustful thought or harbor anger toward a friend, when you’re tempted to ignore the glaring need (however large or small) in your local church, when you’re tempted not to forgive, think about the dozens of hearts waiting to see Christ in you. Remember that the consequences will reach further and deeper than you can think or imagine. Ponder how many unseen needs might one day be met because you planted another seed for God’s kingdom.
The sobering (and inspiring) reality is that far more is at stake in our obedience than our own relationship with Christ. A hundred hearts hang in some real way on how we love (or not). And through them, hundreds more — now, and for years and years to come. God has made our faithfulness a catalyst for others’ perseverance. Obey for God’s sake, for your own sake, but also for their sake. Refresh their hearts in Christ.
Do you love your country? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. And it’s not at all an easy question to answer.
It’s kind of like asking, Do you love your family? Most of us will instinctively want to answer yes to that question. But as soon as you stop to think about it, it becomes clear that further clarification is needed. What does love your family mean?
Are we talking about our nuclear family? This question alone is often fraught with complexity. Do we mean family members (people), and if so, do we mean we love every member to some extent, or we love every member the same? Or are we including loving the family’s values and systems and traditions?
Or are we talking about our extended family? And if so, how extended? Do we mean extended family members we personally know, or the wider family clan? How far back in our genealogical history are we expected to love our family?
As soon as we begin to query what it means to love our family, we see that most people’s answer is likely to be more or less different, based on their family experience and what they mean by love.How Do You Love the United States?
So, getting back to the original question, do you love your country? I imagine most of us Americans will want to answer yes to that question. But none of us will want to answer an unqualified yes. Because it all depends on what love the United States means.
Does it mean we love the abstract ideals and values and concrete declarations of how we will and won’t try to live out these ideals and values together articulated in our founding documents and constitution? All of them? Does it mean we love the various institutional branches of government and various institutional branches of those branches that exist to interpret, protect, and enforce our constitutional declarations? Does it mean we love all the states? What about the territories?
Or does it mean we love the people of the U.S.? If so, how far does that extend? Are we talking everyone residing in the U.S., or only citizens? Does it mean we love every citizen of every ethnic and socioeconomic background and every religious or nonreligious belief? What about citizens who use legitimate social and governmental means to advance beliefs and values we find objectionable or destructive? What about deviant citizens? Do we mean we love past generations of U.S. citizens? Do we mean we love this country’s history?
As soon as we begin to query what it means to love our country, we see that most people’s answers are likely to be more or less different, based on their experiences as Americans and what they mean by love.
The reality is, there is a lot to love and not love about the United States. A nation, like a family, is an institution. And it is no simple thing to love an institution.The Bible Makes It Devastatingly Simple
Now, for the Christian, the Bible brings a great deal of clarity to our question, because it leaves no room for doubt about the kind of love that matters most to God:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
Jesus called these “the great and first commandment[s]” (Matthew 22:37–39). The greatest love — the love without which we are nothing and gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2–3) — is love directed towards persons (divine or mortal) in the present that we personally know, or should know, or meet in the serendipitous course of life. Of course, there are biblical, necessary ways we are to love people we have never met, like Paul’s general love of his Jewish “kinsmen” expressed in Romans 9 and the Macedonians’ love of suffering Christians in Palestine described in 2 Corinthians 8. But the love of God in us is most evident by the way we love the brother we see (1 John 3:17), the neighbor we see (Luke 10:33–34).
What this means regarding our question is that, for the Christian, any love for our country that does not flow from an ultimate love for the triune God, and express itself to our various and diverse “neighbors” in real, concrete ways that our neighbors actually experience, is defective, deficient, secondary love at best. And it might not be love at all.
This, of course, does not address all the ambiguities that arise in discerning what it specifically means for each of us to live out a supreme love for God and our various neighbors. God was intentionally ambiguous on this, because it is in wrestling with such ambiguity that our secret, sinful motives and lack of love get exposed and we are called in different ways to step out in faith. Such ambiguity turns out to be a great mercy to us, because through it, God is pursuing our freedom from sin we don’t see (John 8:34–36) and teaching us how to live the kind of loving life that pleases him (Hebrews 11:6).
But the great commandments do bring a devastating simplicity to the complexities of loving a country (or a family, or a church). As John Piper beautifully says it, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others” (Desiring God, 141). This is what these two supreme commandments look like on the ground when a Christian truly loves his country.Your Nation Is Your Neighbor
In Jesus’s terms, we will only love our nation in the way that matters most to God to the degree that we love our neighbor out of the overflow of our love for, our treasuring, our delight in God. Like the Good Samaritan, which Jesus used as one illustration of what he meant by neighbor-love, we will seek to meet the sometimes inconvenient, costly needs of our neighbors — our ethnically and religiously diverse neighbors — in pursuing their good (Luke 10:30–37). Because real love requires deeds, not just words (1 John 3:18).
But real love also requires words of ultimate truth (Ephesians 4:15). Because truly treasuring God produces a desire for others to share that treasure. And no one ever receives that treasure unless someone shares about him (Romans 10:14).
So I’m asking myself, Do I love the United States? And the place I’m looking for the most important answer to that question is this: How am I loving my neighbors? The abstract and ambiguous quickly become quite concrete and clear. Because when I give an account to Jesus for how I stewarded my most important civic duty, I expect he will want to know if I primarily loved my nation in the form of my neighbor.
What role does God play in the redemption and damnation of sinners? Is he just as sovereign over both?
Very few of us fail to learn, at some point in our growing-up years, the fine art of the fake apology.
We have spoken a careless word to a friend, for example. Conscience lays a millstone of guilt upon our shoulders, but pride staggers forward, refusing to bend the knee. We look for a way to satisfy both parties.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” we say, skillfully implying that the real problem is with our friend’s fragile feelings. Or perhaps we add, “It’s just been such a long week at work,” or “I’m always cranky at this time of night” — statements that locate our guilt somewhere outside us. By the time we’re through, we have decorated the word sorry with enough qualifications that we somehow deserve the apology.
Although the gospel of God’s grace goes to war with such fakery, Christians are not immune from the allure to adorn our apologies and confessions with qualifications. “What we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness,’” C.S. Lewis writes, “very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses” (“On Forgiveness,” 179).
The trouble, of course, is that God does not forgive excuses. He does not forgive qualifications. He does not forgive “buts” and “I was justs.” But he does forgive sins.Forgive Me or Excuse Me?
Nowhere can we spot our fake confessions more clearly than in the accountability group, the Bible study, or wherever else we confess our sins to other people. Whether we are confessing to someone we have wronged, or to someone who simply helps us in the fight of faith, the question remains: Can we lay our sins before the eyes of another, in all their hellish ugliness, without trying to tuck part of them beneath the cover of an excuse?
I often find that my grand ambitions to be transparent, vulnerable, and real feel much less grand as I sit across from another. I read in my quiet times, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) and pray, “God, I want to be like that.” But then I discover that, in the company of others, I prefer to appear spiritually rich — or at least not so poor as I really am. Needy, perhaps, but not a welfare case. I act as if “Blessed are the poor in spirit” actually means “Blessed are those who need a little help.”
And so, I often find myself tempted to adorn my confessions of sin with a variety of excuses, most often in the form of extenuating circumstances and euphemisms.Excuses, Excuses
Sometimes, we explain our sin by adding an extenuating circumstance onto the end of a confession. We shift the center of guilt from in here to out there, and subtly cast ourselves as mere victims of circumstance.
Extenuating circumstance: “I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that; the kids have just been driving me crazy lately.”
Confession: “I lashed out at you because I felt impatient and angry. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Extenuating circumstance: “I wish I wouldn’t have spent the whole day watching that show, but it’s been such a long week at work; I needed to rest somehow.”
Confession: “I used entertainment as an escape from stress instead of trusting God with the burdens I’ve been feeling.”
Extenuating circumstance: “I don’t want to be bitter, but I just can’t get over what she did.”
Confession: “I’ve been holding on to bitterness lately because, deep down, I haven’t believed that God is a good refuge.”
Other times, we blunt the edge of a confession with euphemisms. We exchange the names of specific sins with vague, Christian-y phrases that keep anyone from looking too closely.
Euphemism: “I stumbled.”
Confession: “I lusted in my heart and turned away from Christ.”
Euphemism: “I’m having a hard time being content.”
Confession: “I envied this person’s relationship and resented him for it.”
Euphemism: “I could have been more kind.”
Confession: “I lost control and snapped at my kids.”
To be sure, confessions of sin sometimes warrant additional information. Our friends and family do not share God’s omniscience, so knowing the factors at play can help to clarify the situation. But many of us, in our eagerness to “clarify,” turn our sin into something excusable.
When we lace our confessions with such language, we are no longer confessing sin, and we no longer want forgiveness. We’re offering an excuse, and we want someone to understand.Confess Like a Psalmist
Such was not the practice of the psalmists. When these holy men made public the confession of their sins, they used language that would startle some of our small groups.
When was the last time you turned to a roommate and confessed with Asaph, “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward [God]” (Psalm 73:22)? Or when have you looked at your accountability partners and, with David, lamented that your sins were “more than the hairs of [your] head” (Psalm 40:12)? Or when have you prayed out loud with your spouse, and said to God, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great” (Psalm 25:11)?
Excuses were ready at hand for each of these men had they wanted to make use of them. “But the wicked are prospering!” Asaph could have said (Psalm 73:4–12). “I’ve just been in the pit for so long,” David could have acknowledged (Psalm 40:1–2). “I’m just so tired of enemies boasting over me,” he could have added (Psalm 25:2).
But they didn’t. Where did the psalmists find the strength to confess their sins unvarnished? How could they say to God, in the presence of others, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity” (Psalm 32:5)?
Because they loved the grace of God more than they loved their reputations. Grace had captured them. And the captivity was so sweet they didn’t dream of trying to escape with an excuse.Our Only Hiding Place
The psalmists had discovered, as Charles Spurgeon puts it, that “when we deal seriously with our sin, God will deal gently with us.” Our attempts to excuse our sin might be understandable if we had a harsh Lord, but such is not our Lord Jesus Christ. He holds an “abundance of grace” in his right hand (Romans 5:17), and stands always ready to bestow it on all who confess without excuse (1 John 1:9).
When we refuse to cover our sin (Psalm 32:5), Christ himself covers it with his own blood (Psalm 32:1). And more than that: he hides us behind the shield of his righteousness; he preserves us from the condemnation of the accuser; he surrounds us for all eternity with shouts of deliverance (Psalm 32:7). Better by far to be a poor debtor to grace, and yet belong to this Christ, than to cover ourselves with the finery of our excuses, and yet be left to ourselves in the end.
So find your roommate, your few close friends, your spouse, or some other trusted confidant, and dare to rest wholly on the grace of Christ. Provide any helpful information, by all means, but leave aside every excuse. And find, when you are finished, what Jesus does with your inexcusable sin: He buries it. He casts it into the depths of the sea. He blots it out. He forgives you.
God changes minds through ordinary means: Our gaze fixed upon his word, our knees bowed in prayer, and our time spent with our eternal family.
Some time ago, the relief organization Oxfam ran a number of ads that used a familiar proverb:
Give a man a fish and he’ll feed himself for just a day, but give him the means to catch his own fish and he’ll be able to feed himself and his family for a whole lifetime.
The principle is clear and, on the surface at least, compelling. It is often used as the difference between aid and development. One gives what is needed in the moment; the other seeks to provide the means for being self-sustained. There is an important parallel to this in the Christian life.The Will of God for You
The book of Hebrews reminds us that in the Old Testament era God spoke “at many times and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). We think not just of prophets being given direct words from God, but also of angels appearing with divine guidance, of visions, dreams, and even personal messages appearing on a wall to declare what was to take place (Daniel 5:5).
Looking back on such times, we can easily feel a little envious. Which of us wouldn’t want our own private angel to tell us how best to navigate life? Or a vision to let us know what God’s will is? Without such direct revelations, it can be hard to discern what God would have us do.
But when we think that way, we may actually be asking for less, rather than for more.
The New Testament is not short on teaching about God’s will. It is there. It is clear. But it is often not as specific as we would like. On one occasion Paul writes, “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). That’s all well and good, but what job should I take? Should I move next year? Should I be pursuing marriage? And what about all the smaller decisions we face each day?How We Find His Will
God hasn’t given us a Magic 8 Ball. That might seem frustrating. But he has given us something better:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
This is our relationship to God’s will: not that he emails a daily briefing of what we’re to do each day, but that he gradually renews our minds, changing the way they work, giving us the capacity to discern his will without moment-by-moment direct updates.
This is hugely dignifying. God is not telling us what to think at every moment, but how to think. He’s rarely telling us what decision to make, but teaching us how to make decisions.What God Is After
There are a couple of examples of this in the New Testament. We’ve already seen what Paul said to the Thessalonians. God’s will is that we be sanctified; that by ever-increasing measure we become more and more like he is: holy (1 Peter 1:15). A significant component of that is therefore resisting all sexual immorality. Any move toward sexual sin (mental or physical sin) is a direct contradiction of God’s will. As we take in God’s word, we gain a better understanding of what he’s like, and what he likes.
Or take Romans 8:29: “Those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn of many brothers.” What’s God’s will for you? That you become more like Jesus, and that many others become more like him too. Anything that leads us toward that end is God’s will.
A couple I know retired a few years ago and finally fulfilled their dream of a house by the sea. But they gave no thought to whether there were any healthy local churches. Their decision took them far from the main means God has for conforming his people to the image of Christ and for drawing others to him. Their church didn’t send them out with that purpose. They weren’t ultimately thinking of God’s will for their lives.
Or let me turn this on myself: What if I didn’t take time to be with the Lord and in his word this morning? The Bible doesn’t say I have to sit at my desk at seven o’clock with an open Bible. It does say I’m to become more like Christ. And this won’t happen without time on my knees and in his word.Transformed, Not Just Informed
So, God doesn’t give us a spiritual GPS — “turn left here; then right.” He gives us an atlas — “this is your destination; get here, by all good means available.”
This may not be as easy as simply being told what to do or where to go, but surely it’s far more rewarding. God is training us to not need angels delivering instructions. He’s giving us far more: the increasing capability, by his Spirit who lives in us, to think like he does — to have our minds rebooted with his new operating system. God is not merely handing us a fish when we need to eat, but teaching us how to feed ourselves.
During the process of learning how to “feed ourselves,” however, God’s will often seems frustratingly vague and non-specific. The difficulty is part of the design. In those moments, we must look again at the destination we’re headed, pray much, and think carefully about how to get there. God wants so much more than to prescribe our every step. He wants to help us change. He does not simply want to inform us, but to transform us.
A godly father will want to show God the Father to his children. He will want to model for them the heart of Jesus.
One reason I believe we should only baptize believers by immersion is that baptism, in the New Testament, is meant to be vividly memorable. God means for the memory of being immersed in the waters to fortify us against temptation and bolster our assurance.
Baptists often make and defend their case by quoting specific New Testament verses. On its own, this will not prove persuasive to some infant-baptists, but it is a good place to start. Woe to us if we ignore the plain, obvious, even stubborn reading of the words of God almighty to us in the Scriptures.
Beyond the most important verses in the New Testament, however, we need to pay attention to the bigger picture, and the covenantal dynamics of how the whole Bible fits together. Baptists must test our readings of our proof texts within the larger theological and covenantal considerations put forward in the Scriptures. And when we do, I believe we find the believer-baptist case is not only upheld, but significantly strengthened.
In this article, I want to tackle a third major consideration — namely, that rites of covenant inauguration are more fitting and effective when memorable to the applicant. In fact, they are designed to be memorable. This highlights an important difference between old-covenant circumcision and new-covenant baptism. A male infant who is circumcised will carry this initiatory rite in his own flesh for his whole life. The same is not the case with baptism. This makes baptism a rite more fittingly applied to (1) those mature enough to remember it, as well as (2) those who themselves profess already-existent faith, worked in them by God, rather than simply the hope and prayer that faith may one day be granted.Sign and Seal
While Romans 4:11 has circumcision in view, not baptism, we learn something about a rite of covenant initiation that applies to baptism. The insight also helps to explain why, famously, the great Reformer Martin Luther (rightly) would seek to recall his baptism when struggling for assurance (and against temptation). Abraham, Paul says, “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Romans 4:11).
Baptists commonly emphasize that new-covenant baptism, like old-covenant circumcision, functions as a sign. Baptism demonstrates visibly and objectively in the world what has happened invisibly and subjectively in the heart. God has taken out a heart of stone and put in a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He has caused us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3) and granted the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:7; Philippians 1:29). Baptism outwardly signifies this inward reality. But what does it mean for a rite of covenant initiation to be not only a sign but also a seal?
In the ancient world, kings and dignitaries of all stripes (all the way down to heads of households) often possessed a particular symbol, whether on a staff or ring or another small piece of metal, which they could stamp into hot wax to authenticate that a message was from them and had their backing. For instance, in Daniel 6, once the prophet was lowered into the lion’s den, the king “sealed it with his own signet . . . that nothing might be changed” (Daniel 6:17).
In the New Testament, believers are said to be sealed with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 4:30), whom Ephesians 1:13 explains as “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.” Even though we are, in a sense, not yet fully saved and brought completely into our final salvation, God puts his seal on us, in the present age, by giving us his Spirit, which confirms in our hearts (Romans 5:5) that we are truly his and that he will indeed save us fully in the end. And the Spirit, of course, is invisible and works subjectively in us as he “dwells” in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Timothy 1:14).
Baptism, then, along with the Lord’s Supper, serves as a kind of visible and objective seal, confirming to the individual Christian, through the church as a whole, not only God’s covenant love and faithfulness to his people in general, but also his specific love, care, and full acceptance of me through faith in his Son.Means of God’s Grace
Baptism, like circumcision, is a rite to be “received” (Romans 4:11), not performed. Not only is the believer testifying to the church and the world that Jesus is his Lord, but also, and more significantly, God is testifying to the baptizee, through the church, “You are mine. I call you ‘beloved.’ You are in my Son by faith and righteous in my sight. You are fully accepted in him.”
The baptizee is not the main actor in baptism but a participant and receiver, first from God (“You are mine”) and then from the church (“We believe your faith is genuine”). The declaration of baptism to the believer is not infallible, but it is objective, public, and significant in the life of faith. Baptism is like a wedding ceremony, in which God, the church (the witnesses), and the recipient all speak. Baptism is not alone the grounds of our assurance, but it is a real and tangible event that contributes to our overall experience of assurance.
The reality of baptism as not only sign but seal raises the question of God’s means of grace and their use. Some Christians shy away from this language related to baptism, but if defined rightly, it is appropriate and helpful. Baptism is indeed a one-time means of grace, through faith, to the believer in that it confirms to us the reality of our faith and strengthens that faith, as we receive the testimony of God, in the testimony of the church. Baptism also dramatizes the gospel as the believer is buried under the water, symbolizing the death of the old self, and then raised to new life in coming up out of the water.
Baptists often accent that we receive baptism in obedience to Jesus’s command (Matthew 28:19), and baptism is indeed an act of obedience. However, we do well to observe and emphasize that baptism also extends God’s grace to his church (and, in a different sense, to the world). Each baptism proclaims God’s power to awaken the spiritually dead and transform lives by the gospel of his Son, and each baptism dramatizes that power, for the joy of the church, in a one-time experience for a particular person.Immersed and Commissioned
Baptism also serves as a kind of commissioning to the life of faith. We often accent the rite as initiatory to the family, but it’s also a commission from our Lord to join his church in making disciples — which is another reason to baptize only professing believers. Baptism doesn’t merely mark out who’s in the new covenant or not, but also recognizes the commission of the administers (not mediators) of the covenant. In this sense, baptism is a kind of ordination or appointment to the priesthood of all believers.
Baptism, then, as a means of grace serves as another inroad into the question of who should be baptized, and how. God’s appointed means of grace — whether his word, prayer, fellowship, or more specifically the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper — serve as instruments of God’s favor to those who receive them seriously and in faith, and instruments of judgment to those taking them lightly or partaking apart from faith (as we see in 1 Corinthians 11:27–32). It would be unwise, and perhaps perilous, to alter, treat lightly, or administer the sacrament to any who do not profess faith.
Now, alongside the error of administering the sacrament apart from faith, we should note, as well, the error of treating baptism lightly in whatever form that would take, whether mass, spur-of-the-moment baptisms, or tourist immersions in the Jordan River. Such abuses are even more grave than well-meaning infant-baptisms that treat the rite seriously but misunderstand its proper recipients.Improve Our Baptism?
Beyond the one-time experience of the baptizee, baptism as a means of grace relates to Christians throughout our lives as we observe, with faith, the baptisms of others. The Westminster Larger Catechism calls this “improving our baptism” and concedes, even then (centuries ago), it was a “much neglected duty.” Much of what Westminster confesses is applicable to those baptized as infants, though the whole practice of “improving our baptism” is markedly strengthened and deepened when the Christian himself chose and remembers the event of his own baptism.
Here’s the entirety of the section from Question 167 on “improving our baptism,” which rewards a careful reading. Note the line least fitting to those baptized as infants: “our solemn vow made therein.”
The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
In other words, baptism is not only a blessing to us on that one memorable occasion when we were the new believer in the waters. It also is a rehearsing of the gospel for us as observers and a means of grace “all our life long” as we watch, with faith, the baptisms of others and renew in our minds the riches of the reality of our identity in Christ pictured in our baptism (Romans 6:3–4; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12).End of the Means
Perhaps one reason that some Christians avoid the language of “means of grace” with baptism is owing to ambiguity — to a false impression communicated in the language of means. This is a good concern. The sacraments are not mechanistic. They do not distribute impersonal grace to the soul, even of those who partake in faith. Rather, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper — like the faithful preaching of God’s word — bring us into a personal encounter with God himself.
We dare not focus so intently on the what of the sacraments that we miss the great who at the heart of grace. Believers receive actual spiritual benefit through the sacraments, not simply outward signs; and God himself is the one who gives the benefit in relationship with himself, not the rite itself. There is no grace to receive apart from God himself. For the Christian, grace has a face. Jesus is the Grace of God Incarnate (Titus 2:11). And what makes baptism, and the Table, and the preaching of God’s word, so powerful and significant for the Christian life is that these are avenues where God has promised us his presence. These are among his revealed paths of grace along which we position ourselves for regular encounter with him.
The great goal of the sacraments — the end of the means of grace — is knowing and enjoying God in Christ. The final joy in any truly Christian discipline or practice or rhythm of life is, in the words of the apostle, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “This is eternal life” — and this is the goal of any Christian “means of grace” — “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Our heartbeat in coming to be baptized, and to the Table, and watching others’ baptisms in faith, is this: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (Hosea 6:3). And if such a vision of the Christian life, and of the sacraments, is yours as well, perhaps you can see why many of us believe it’s only fitting to apply the grace of baptism to those who profess to know and pursue our Lord.
I am an impatient person. I don’t like waiting. I get annoyed by slow drivers in fast lanes. I audibly sigh when I get into a long checkout line. I am quick to remind wait staff in restaurants that I’m waiting to be seated or served.
Those are trivial situations, yet I still find it hard to wait. There are bigger, much more important issues that I’ve waited for as well. I’ve waited an agonizingly long time for healing from my post-polio. For clarity on which path to take in an important decision. For restoration of a difficult relationship. For a dear friend to return to faith. For each, I have waited long past the time when I thought my requests should have been answered. For many serious requests, I’m still waiting.
I take comfort in seeing that people in the Bible, like Abraham, grew impatient too when their prayers and promises didn’t materialize as they’d hoped.What Only God Could Do
God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. And then there was silence. Nothing happened for eleven long years (imagine where you were eleven years ago). Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was barren and well past her childbearing years.
After more than a decade of waiting, they both assumed that perhaps they needed to act on their own to fulfill the promise of God. So, Abraham took Hagar, Sarah’s servant, and had Ishmael. For a while, they thought the promises would now come true through Ishmael.
Thirteen years later, God told them Sarah would bear a son, Isaac. They had waited so long, neither of them believed God was going to do it now. Abraham was decidedly unenthusiastic at the proclamation. After he audibly laughed and inwardly doubted, Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:18).
Abraham had figured out a way to have heirs on his own. The thought of waiting, being wholly dependent on God, wasn’t part of his plan. He wanted God to bless what he had done, rather than wait for what only God could do.Why We Give Up Waiting
That’s what I often do. I don’t like waiting. I want to act, to figure it out, to know with certainty what’s going to happen. And then I want to move ahead. Abraham wanted God to bless Ishmael so he could have descendants through him. God had something different in mind, something that unfolded to Abraham over time — something impossible in the eyes of man.
Honestly, often I want Ishmael too. I want the thing I can figure out, that I have control over, that doesn’t require waiting and trusting.
What do we do when, like Abraham, our waiting for days turns into months, which turns into years, which turns into decades? Do we turn our heart away from God, who seemingly never delivered what we’re waiting for? If that happens, could it be that what we are waiting for is more important to us than God?What God Denies Us
What is happening in our waiting? Is it just an empty space between our prayers and their fulfillment? No, in our waiting, God does his deepest work.
God is sanctifying us and teaching us to trust him. Sometimes we get what we are waiting for, and we rejoice and are grateful. Other times, we never see that fulfillment on earth, and we are drawn closer to God as we continue to seek him.
God has not forgotten us. It’s not that our requests are unimportant. He will answer them in his own time (which is also always the best time for us). He sees what we cannot see; he knows the potential dangers and snares he is protecting us from. While we’re waiting, God is with us. He aches with us, cries with us, comforts us. He meets us in our pain and uses all our struggles for our good. One day, we will thank him for everything that he gave us, and denied us, on this earth.Pass on the Humanly Possible
Waiting is good for us. It’s painfully easy, however, to grow weary and take matters into our own hands because it’s taking too long. It’s tempting to look for Ishmael, to provide for ourselves, to meet our desires our own way. It may feel like we’re simply finding another means to an end, but God is in both the means and the end. Don’t shortcut what God has for you. Don’t give in to disillusionment. Don’t settle for Ishmael when God has Isaac for you. Isaac was the son of laughter and promise, the fulfillment of all God had said. Isaac was worth waiting for.
Isaac requires faith. It’s scary to let go of a sure thing and wait for something that may not materialize. We’re afraid we’ll be left with nothing, wondering why we waited at all. We may reason that something is better than nothing, and so we are satisfied with Ishmael. It meets our needs. But Ishmael will never fulfill us because Ishmael is what we do in our own strength. And we have no ability to satisfy our deepest desires. We need God to do that. He may do it through miraculously fulfilling what we asked for, or he may do it by denying what we asked for and giving us more of himself. Either way, we will find joy because we have him.
What is your Ishmael? What are you tired of waiting for and tempted to take into your own hands? What are you afraid to let go of because it seems that something is better than nothing? What are you trusting God for?
Don’t settle for what is humanly possible; wait for what only God can do.
We cannot disagree with Christians in any way we want. God has given us boundaries and ways forward.
We keep falling into the same sin when we fail to believe that holiness really will make us happier than giving in again. Many other factors may influence us, but at the root of habitual sin is a battle not for self-control, but for happiness. What we believe and want, deep in our hearts, really matters.
When my two oldest children were younger teens, they did what most younger teens do (including my three remaining teens). They ransacked the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for empty, sugar-based carbohydrates. If they didn’t find them, they would run to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. My wife and I would urge them toward more balanced diets and cite the science-based negative effects of such foods on the body and mind, but with little success.
Then, around ages 17 or 18, suddenly they began to eat healthy, nutritious food and eschew junk food. In fact, they began to excel their parents and exhort the rest of the family regarding the importance of eating well. Now in their early twenties, they eat far better than I did at their ages.
What happened to them? It really wasn’t that they went from being ignorant to being informed. They knew, even as kids, that junk food was “bad” for them and veggies were “good” for them. What they lacked was a belief that eating veggies would really make them happier in the long run than eating junk food now. Then they experienced an “awakening” that nutritious food would bring greater long-term joy, on multiple levels, than empty carbs. That is when they began to change what they ate.
Their awakenings provide a helpful illustration of why we often live in defeat before a habitual sin: we will keep choosing to sin as long as we believe that choosing not to sin is choosing less happiness.Sin Can Be Quite Simple
Now, I’m a very experienced sinner (like you are), so I know how reductionistic this can sound. There are many factors contributing to why we keep giving in to sin, even if we think we don’t want to. Sin is quite complex, isn’t it?
Actually, no. Sin can create complex illusions, and it can result in all kinds of complexity. But at its essence, sin is quite simple.
The apostle John says it in four words: “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17). Yes, but aren’t our motivations and influences to do wrong a big tangled mess? Well, the apostle James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:14–15). Not a lot of qualifications. Not a lot of rationalizations. Not a lot of complications.
If we’re tempted to think that this was due to James’s ignorance of psychological, sociological, biological, or family-of-origin factors influencing us to sin, we’re mistaken. He may have lacked the extent of scientific data available in our day, but he knew human beings. His epistle is full of penetrating insight into our inner workings. In fact, I think he saw more clearly into us than most twenty-first-century Westerners do. James simply saw what sin is at its core.Sin at Its Core
Every sin, every wrongdoing, no matter what kind — whether acted out in behavior or nurtured secretly in some dark place of our heart (Matthew 5:28) — is a manifestation of something we believe. Every sin is born out of a belief that disobeying God (wrongdoing) will produce a happier outcome than obeying God (right-doing). Whether or not we’re conscious of this, it’s true. Nobody sins out of duty.
Every sin is some repeat version, some re-run, of the original human sin, when our ancient parents ate the forbidden tree’s fruit. Why did they do it? Were they ignorant? No. God told them directly that eating the fruit would be wrongdoing and they would be far happier if they refrained from eating (Genesis 2:16–17). But Satan put a different spin on God’s words and motives, and told them they would be far happier if they ate.
They weighed both assertions and made their choice. They saw the tree was “good for food” (“the desire of the flesh”), “a delight to the eyes” (“the desire of the eyes”), and “desir[able] to make one wise” (“the pride of life,” Genesis 3:6; 1 John 2:16). They ate for the joy they (wrongly) believed was set before them.We Choose What We Believe
It wasn’t wrongdoing for Adam and Eve to be motivated by joy, any more than it was wrong for Jesus to be motivated by joy (Hebrews 12:2). That’s why we choose to do, or not do, anything.
If given the choice, we choose what we believe will make us happier than we are, or less miserable than we are — even if the knowledge in our head tells us our choice is “wrong.” As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” And Pascal knew what drove the heart’s reasons: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception.” God made us this way.
What made it wrongdoing was where Adam and Eve tried to find joy, where they placed their faith. They believed Satan’s promise of joy over God’s promise of joy. For “whatever does not proceed from faith [in God] is sin” (Romans 14:23). And “whoever would draw near to God must believe . . . that he is the rewarder of those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).Getting Free from Habitual Sin
When we are caught in habitual or besetting sin, our problem, at its core, may be simple. What’s holding us captive is a deceptive belief about what will make us happy.
I know the objections that might come. We do often “know” that a sin is destructive to us and others. We might loathe the sin in certain ways and feel shame over it. We may have a sincere longing to be free, and just feel like we can’t, like we’re enslaved to it — which, in a sense, we are (John 8:34). These are the complex consequences and illusions sin produces.
The truth is, however, that we are enslaved as we believe that to give up the sin is to embrace living with less happiness or more misery. Like my now-adult kids once believed: eating junk food might be “bad” for them, but life was more happy eating “bad” food than eating “good” food. This didn’t change until their belief about nutritional happiness changed. Once that changed, the power of junk food began to lose its hold on them.
Habitual sin is not fundamentally defeated through the power of self-denial, but through the power of a greater desire. Self-denial is of course necessary, but self-denial is only possible — certainly for the long term — when it is fueled by a desire for a greater joy than what we deny (Matthew 16:24–26).How to Break Free
The secret to getting free from the entrapment of habitual sin begins with a prayerful, rigorous, honest examination of what satanic promises we have believed — and the better promises God has made. Which promises will really produce the longest and best happiness if true? And which source of promises has the most proven credibility?
Then we must renounce the lies we have believed, repent to God for having persistently believed them, and begin to exercise faith in God’s promises through obeying him — “[bearing] fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
As I said, this is just the beginning. I make no promise of it being easy from there. It is often very hard, because insight into our false beliefs does not itself unseat those beliefs. Often, entrenched false beliefs have shaped our perceptions and instinctive behaviors and therefore take significant time and intentional effort to change. It is not called the “fight of faith” for nothing (1 Timothy 6:12).
But I will say this: the more convinced you become that God is the source of all superior joys for you, the more resolved you will become to fight for those joys, and the easier the fight will become over time. But unless you become convinced, in some measure, that this is true, the power of your habitual sins will keep their hold on you.
If God created the world to display the fullness of his attributes, would he have been less glorious without creation?
ABSTRACT: The book of Job is a book of wisdom — but the wisdom sits beneath a surface that can at times feel impenetrable. In chapters 3–37 especially, readers can feel lost in a mixture of truth, error, and misapplied theology. With the help of some interpretive guidelines, however, the meaning of each speech can slowly become clear in light of the whole, and point readers to another man, more innocent than Job, whose suffering would rescue the world.
For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Christopher Ash, writer-in-residence at Tyndale House, to offer guidelines for interpreting the book of Job. You can also download and print a PDF of the article.
In my commentaries on the book of Job, I have criticized preaching that majors on the first two chapters and the final chapters, and more or less skims over the long speeches in between.1 But let me say a word in defense of those I critique in this way. I can understand why people do this. When you and I read Job 1 and 2 or God’s speeches in chapters 38–41, we have some understanding of what is going on. There are puzzles, of course, but perhaps no more than elsewhere in the Old Testament. I feel I can preach an edifying sermon from these chapters.
But place me in the seeming morass of the cycles of speeches, and I feel I am in an impenetrable maze. What am I to do when I read the following from Job?
It is all one; therefore I say,
“[God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked.”
When disaster brings sudden death,
he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. (Job 9:22–23)
This sounds terrible and wrong. And yet it is Job who says it!
Or what should I think when I meditate on this, from Eliphaz?
Agree with God, and be at peace;
thereby good will come to you.
Receive instruction from his mouth,
and lay up his words in your heart.
If you return to the Almighty you will be built up;
if you remove injustice far from your tents,
if you lay gold in the dust,
and gold of Ophir among the stones of the torrent-bed,
then the Almighty will be your gold
and your precious silver.
For then you will delight yourself in the Almighty
and lift up your face to God. (Job 22:21–26)
This passage is beautiful. I remember a youth leader treating these words as true and reliable. But the speech is from one of Job’s comforters — and I thought they were all wrong!Nine Guidelines for Interpreting Job
So what am I to do? I can understand why people fight shy of chapters 3–37. How am I supposed to read the book of Job? That is our question. Here are nine guidelines. The first and last are deliberately the same.1. Ask how the book of Job makes you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Famously, in 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul says that “the sacred writings” (which, in the first instance, means the Old Testament) “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Salvation doesn’t just mean “getting saved” at the start of our Christian lives; mostly it means getting saved at the end of our Christian lives, when our bodies are redeemed (Romans 8:23; 13:11). So the Old Testament Scriptures are given to enable us to learn how to come to Christ, how to go on trusting Christ, and how to trust Christ to the very end.
The biggest question to ask the book of Job, then, is not “Does this teach me about God’s law, about right and wrong?” but “How does this point me to Christ and show me how to live by faith in Christ?” Like all the Old Testament, Job points us to the gospel. We shall come back to this at the end.2. Don’t expect it to be easy: you are learning wisdom.
Job is a book of wisdom that makes us “wise for salvation.” And wisdom doesn’t come quickly or easily. The search for wisdom is a lifelong pursuit. The questions that the book of Job asks cannot be answered on a postcard or in a tweet; they are big questions that need slow answers. After giving some illustrations of the life of the pastor (2 Timothy 2:3–6), Paul says to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). If that’s true for three (perhaps not so very difficult) illustrations, how much more is it true for the complexities of the book of Job.
Wisdom is like the priceless jewel for which the miner risks his life (Job 28); the search for wisdom will take all the yearning, the prayer, the seeking, and the grappling that we have. If you approach the book of Job thinking it’s going to be easy, you are riding for a fall. By a strangely appropriate irony, I wrote much of my longer commentary on Job while going through a nervous breakdown. Wisdom is worth getting, but it is a costly and lifelong task to find it. A few perplexed hours, days, or weeks in the book of Job is a small price to pay.3. Read the middle in the light of the ends: (a) anchor to the markers at the start.
In chapters 1 and 2, the Spirit-inspired writer of the book of Job lays down some markers. Perhaps the most important of these for us to note here is what the writer says three times about Job himself. Right at the start, the narrator tells us that “Job . . . was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The Lord says the same to the satan:2 Job is “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8); and then he says it again: “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 2:3). This is clearly important.
I will call this Marker One. Job is “blameless,” which means he has integrity. He is not sinless, but he is genuine; he is not a hypocrite. Job is “upright,” which means he treats other people with justice. Job “fears God” with the loving, reverent fear of the believer, the wise fear that is the hallmark of true piety in Proverbs. Job “turns away from evil”; repentance is the shape of his life.
If we do not hear this refrain, we will find ourselves agreeing with Job’s comforters — as when Eliphaz says, “Is not your evil abundant? There is no end to your iniquities” (Job 22:5). Like so many prosperity-gospel preachers, we will chide Job for his unbelief and think that his final blessing comes because he has repented of secret sins he has been denying all along. But Job is not a secret sinner; he is a true believer. What happens to him is not a punishment for sins, but a strange anticipation of the innocent suffering of a later Believer.4. Read the middle in the light of the ends: (b) anchor to the markers at the end.
The writer gives us two more anchor markers at the end.
Marker Two is in Job 42:7, where God says to Eliphaz, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” We learn two lessons from this statement. First, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have not spoken rightly about God. We shall see that they have sometimes said some true things, indeed quite a few true things; Paul even quotes a true statement of Eliphaz!3 But when we look at the whole picture of what they have said, it is not true.
The second lesson we learn from Marker Two is that Job has spoken rightly about God. While it is possible that this right speaking refers just to what Job has said at the very end, in response to the Lord’s speeches, it seems more likely that this is an overall assessment of all Job’s words. But just as the comforters say some true things while being overall false, so Job says some untrue things while being overall true. And therein lies our puzzle.
Marker Three is that, in his responses to the Lord’s speeches, Job does repent. In Job 40:3–5 and then more clearly in Job 42:1–6, Job repents of some of what he has said. He acknowledges that he has “uttered what [he] did not understand.” When we put Marker Three alongside Marker One, we learn that, while Job’s friends say that Job is suffering because he has sinned (in his secret misdeeds), in reality he sins (in what he says) because he is suffering.45. Don’t atomize; read the story.
So, if the comforters say true things while being overall untrue, and Job says untrue things while being overall true, how are we to read their speeches? Answer: we beware of reading them in too small chunks. This is the bane of small-group Bible studies in so much of the Old Testament: we divide up the text into bite-sized sections and then misapply these little portions. The meaning of the poetic speeches is found by taking them in broad sweeps and by holding them together with the neighboring speeches, and all of them in the context of the big story of the book.
Let us take Bildad’s speech in Job 18 as an example. In verses 5–21, Bildad gives the most spine-chillingly accurate and powerful evocation of the terrors of hell. It is all true; it is frightening; the rest of Scripture confirms it. But — and this is the key — he speaks it to the wrong man! In verses 2–4, he chides Job for his words (in which Job maintains that he is not being punished for his sins). He accuses Job of expecting the moral order of the universe (symbolized by “the earth . . . the rock” in verse 4) to be rearranged to suit his convenience. That is to say, he applies his teaching about the judgment of the wicked directly to Job. He implies — pretty clearly — that the wicked man in verses 5–21 is Job himself. The reason that Job is experiencing such “terrors” is that he is one of “the wicked.” He must be; why else is he suffering like this?
Bildad’s error is that he assumes punishment will be more or less immediate, and therefore the experience of punishment indicates guilt. Bildad has no place in his system for innocent suffering. While we may indeed learn from Job 18 something of how terrifying are the agonies of hell, the main lesson we learn is that a blameless believer can suffer some of these terrors. This prepares us to grasp just a little more of what the one greater than Job will bear for us.6. Look for movement: remember that Job and his comforters start with the same convictions.
One of the most instructive features to watch for in the cycles of speeches is the movement in Job and the lack of movement in his comforters. All four of them begin with the natural understanding of all moral people, that we live in a universe in which vice will be punished and virtue rewarded. Job holds this conviction at the start as well.
But whereas the comforters will never let the evidence get in the way of a tidy theory, Job grapples honestly with the question as he experiences undeserved suffering. The comforters say much the same at the end as they said at the beginning, albeit a little more irritated by Job. But Job is learning. He responds with the honest humility of a believer.7. Don’t forget to test everything by the rest of Scripture.
The Bible is a coherent book. No part of it contradicts another part. So, when wondering about, or puzzling over, a particular difficult text, never forget the old principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture. For example, if I find myself wondering whether the role of the satan means that God is not in full control of events, I comfort myself from the unanimous testimony of the whole Bible that God is completely sovereign and governs all things with his infinite wisdom and power.8. Be prepared to live with uncertainty.
There are enduring difficulties in the book of Job. For one thing, there are a considerable number of textual and translation uncertainties. A good commentary will help you with this, but sometimes you will have to say, “We can’t be sure.”
And there are some bigger puzzles. One of the most obvious is the enigmatic figure of Elihu in chapters 32–37. Scholars have differed in their assessment of this man, who begins to answer Job and — perhaps — prepares the way for the Lord’s answers. I changed my own mind on this after writing my first commentary on Job and as I worked on my second. At first, I thought that Elihu was an ambiguous speaker, not so very different from the three comforters. I have now concluded that he speaks with prophetic wisdom and is a reliable forerunner of the Lord himself. I have given my reasons for this in the longer commentary. I may be wrong.
When reading a complex book like Job, we need to be prepared to admit that there are questions about which we are not, and perhaps never will be, sure.9. Ask how the book of Job makes you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
The central human character in the book of Job is a blameless man who suffers intensely for sins he has not committed. Job in his sufferings foreshadows the Lord Jesus in his undeserved passion. The book of Job helps us to understand a little more of what Jesus suffered and why.
But there is more to it than this. For all who are in Christ, there is an overflow from the sufferings of Christ to us (e.g., Romans 8:17; Colossians 1:24). Just as the satan was God’s ordained accuser to demonstrate that Job was indeed what the Lord said he was, so the satan was God’s ordained enemy to prove to the universe that Jesus was what the Father said he was. And now the satan asks that he may sift the disciples of Jesus. This sifting is necessary, that it may be seen that genuine disciples are indeed genuine.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you [plural, the disciples], that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular, Peter] that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32). Through the prayers of the Lord Jesus, Peter displays that he is a genuine believer. What is true for Peter proves true for every genuine believer; through “necessary . . . trials . . . the tested genuineness of your faith . . . may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7). Only when some echo of the sufferings of Job comes upon the people of Christ will it be seen that our faith is tested and genuine; then the glory will go to the God who gave us this faith.
The book of Job makes us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ because it helps us grasp, and trust, the blameless sufferings of Christ for us. But it also makes us wise for salvation by preparing us for a life that walks in the footsteps of Christ, a walk that Job foreshadows for us.Job’s Agony: 9:22–23
Let us go back to the first of the difficult examples with which we began. In Job 9:22–23, Job clearly accuses God of cruel injustice. What do we do when we puzzle over this? It is clear from the rest of Scripture that what he says is not true. But then why does Job say it, and what can we learn from him?
First, we note that these verses come in the middle of Job’s speech that extends through all of chapters 9 and 10. Next, we remember that Job is responding to the first speeches of Eliphaz (chapters 4 and 5) and Bildad (chapter 8), who insist that there can be no injustice in the universe (e.g., Job 4:7; 8:3). Third, we remember (Marker One) that Job himself does not deserve the terrible sufferings he is enduring; we must never doubt this.
So what next? We have two options: either Job is not really as innocent as he says, or the system of Eliphaz and Bildad doesn’t work. Since we know that Job really is innocent, it must be the latter. But Job shares with Eliphaz and Bildad the conviction that we live in a moral universe. The turmoil of chapters 9 and 10 arises precisely because Job is trying to work out how or why the system of which he had been so sure doesn’t seem to be true. And it really bothers him. It worries him intensely. Indeed, it pains him even more than his sufferings pain him; for it seems to him to call into question the justice of God. In most of chapter 9, Job reaffirms the sovereign power of God; he never doubts this. But then, in verses 22 and 23, he makes the (understandable but wrong) deduction that, if God is sovereign, then everything that happens must directly express what pleases him. If injustice happens, it must happen because God wills it to happen.
Here is where we need to bring in the spectacles of the rest of Scripture. From other places in the Bible, we know that Job is right about God being sovereign. Anything that happens, happens because God decrees that it shall happen (Isaiah 46:9–10; Romans 11:36). But we know from chapters 1 and 2 that what happens on earth does not express the will of God in the same way that, for example, goodness and kindness and love express the will of God. Jesus will teach us to pray that the will of God will be “done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s will is done on earth now; there is no question in the Bible about that. But it is not yet done in the same way as it is done in heaven. God decrees things on earth that do not accord with his good moral pleasure; he does so because, in his deep wisdom, evil serves his purposes of ultimately greater good. The climactic example of God’s deep wisdom is the cross of Christ, a terribly wicked and ugly act that is, at the same time, the perfect expression of God’s will to save many (Acts 2:23).
And so, we hear in Job 9:22–23 the honest agonies of an innocent sufferer who rightly believes that God is almighty, but is honest enough to recognize undeserved suffering when he sees it. We do not agree that Job is ultimately right to express what he does in the way that he does here; he will need to admit that he has spoken without knowledge (Job 42:3). But he does so out of a heart that loves God, that seeks to honor God, that yearns to understand the mystery of undeserved suffering. That mystery will finally be unveiled only at the cross of Christ.Eliphaz’s Rebuke: 22:21–26
Now let us take a complementary example. We have looked at something wrong that Job says from a believing heart. Now let us look at something right that Eliphaz says from an unbelieving heart. We noted at the start that Eliphaz’s words here are beautiful and — on the face of it — a gospel appeal to Job to repent. But we know (Marker One) that Job does not need to repent. I do not mean that in an absolute sense; we know that Job does habitually “turn away from evil”; so repentance rightly characterizes his life. But there is no secret hidden sin of which he needs to repent, which is what Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar think there must be. They are wrong.
So when Eliphaz deduces that Job’s sufferings must be evidence of some unrepented sin, he is deeply mistaken. We learn from this that we should be very hesitant to accuse someone of sin simply because we see them suffering. The same spirit would jeer and mock at Jesus on the cross; after all, he is clearly accursed by God, so he must have deserved this curse! But no, Job does not deserve it; he experiences in advance some strange anticipatory overflow of the sufferings of Christ. Jesus does not deserve it, for he who is without sin is made to be sin for the sinful people he came to save (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christian believers do not, in a punitive sense, deserve their suffering, for all their sin has been paid for by Jesus. Their sufferings may be the Father’s loving discipline (Hebrews 12:5–11), but they are not a punishment for sins. We learn from Eliphaz’s mistake to be very careful to leave room in our worldview for the undeserved sufferings of one who is in Christ.Keep Reading
Don’t despair when grappling with the book of Job. Interpreting the book isn’t easy, but neither is it impossible. Remember that it points us, like all of Scripture, to faith in Christ. Keep in mind the clear markers at the start and at the end. Read the story in big sweeps; try not to get bogged down in puzzling minutiae. Be prepared to live with some uncertainty about secondary things. Seek to hear, feel, and be moved by the massive anticipations of the sufferings of Christ and then of his persecuted church.
May the Lord give you patience, perseverance, biblical wisdom, and grace to read Job so that you become yet more wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, whom Job so vividly foreshadows.
Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014); Christopher Ash, Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2004). ↩
In the Hebrew, “satan” is literally “the satan,” suggesting that this is a title (“the accuser” or “the advsersary”) rather than a proper name. ↩
The words “He catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Corinthians 3:19) are taken from Eliphaz’s speech in Job 5:13. ↩
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.
Happy memories flood my mind when I hear these words. We sang them often in church when I was young — bobbling up and down on our toes. The best church songs in the South were toe-bobbers. And my father seemed to love “Power in the Blood” most of all. I could tell he would sing louder than normal on this one, and I’d follow suit. I think the whole congregation sang with more gusto than usual, but I couldn’t hear them well with the two of us both raising our voices.
Christians of all stripes and leaning affirm there is indeed power in the blood of Jesus. Word- and Spirit-shaped souls feel that intuitively, but have you ever paused to ask how? Is the magic blood? If there is power in his blood, how do we explain the reality? What truths operate under the surface when we celebrate, in shorthand, this wonder-working pow’r?What Does the Blood Do?
The New Testament epistle to the Hebrews builds the bridge from the Old Testament sacrificial system (and its blood) to the new covenant and Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice (Hebrews 9:7, 12). Throughout the Bible, blood represents life (for instance, Genesis 9:4), and the spilling or shedding of blood, in turn, depicts death (Leviticus 17:11, 14; Deuteronomy 12:23). Because the just penalty of human sin against God is death (Romans 6:23), the death of sanctioned animal sacrifices, through the presentation of their blood, stood in temporarily for the requirement of death for sinners. Yet the high priest had to return year after year, “repeatedly” (Hebrews 9:7; 9:25), because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The repeated animal sacrifices were delaying the inevitable, waiting on God’s fullness of times. One day a final reckoning for sin must come.
Christians, of course, believe and celebrate that now in Christ, and under the terms of a new covenant, the reckoning has come. Jesus willingly “offered himself” (Hebrews 9:14) by “once for all” shedding “his own blood” (Hebrews 9:12), bringing to its intended completion the temporary covenant that came before (the old covenant) and inaugurating in its place an “eternal covenant,” (Hebrews 13:30), which we call the new covenant.
Hebrews celebrates some of the specific benefits Christians enjoy because of Jesus’s blood (Hebrews 10:19; 13:12), but it’s the apostle Paul, in particular, who celebrates the manifold grace that comes to us because of his blood. In one sense, we can connect to Jesus’s blood every divine grace that comes to us, but five times Paul makes the connection explicit, with both the mention of blood and a specific aspect of what Christ has secured for us with his death.Propitiation: To Remove God’s Righteous Wrath
Romans 3:25 says Jesus is the one whom “God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Because God is just, the sins of his people are no small obstacle. In his kindness and grace, he has chosen to love us, yet in his justice he cannot sweep our sins, which are acts of cosmic treason against him, under the rug of the universe. So, in his love, he devises a way to satisfy justice and still triumph with mercy.
God himself, in the person of his own Son, takes on human flesh and blood and offers himself in the place of sinful people, to receive the just wrath of God and pay our penalty in his death, all that we might live. His blood, then, signifying the sacrificial giving of his life in the place of those deserving death (and “received by faith”), propitiates his righteous wrath, upholds divine justice, and opens the floodgates of his mercy.Justification: To Extend God’s Full Acceptance
Romans 5:9 says “we have now been justified by his blood.” Justified is courtroom language. The prosecution and defense each present their case, and the judge or jury makes a declaration: either righteous or condemned. The defendant is either guilty as charged or declared to be in right standing with the law — justified.
The reason those who are united to Jesus by faith are justified is owing, in part, to his sacrificial and substitutionary death. He willingly shed his own blood not for his own sins (he had none), but for ours. The spilling of his blood to cover our sins made possible our sharing in his righteousness by joining us to him through faith. Without his blood, our unrighteousness would remain unaddressed. We could not stand with him at the final judgment and receive with him his Father’s declaration, “Righteous.”Redemption: To Purchase Our True Freedom
Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” To redeem means to buy back or secure the freedom of someone in bondage. Because of our sins, we all were (or continue to be) in spiritual captivity. Our violations of God’s law mean we deserve his omnipotent, righteous wrath. But in Christ, by the shedding of his blood, which forgives our sins before God, he purchases our freedom from justice and from the power of Satan. “Having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:13–14), through his self-offering at the cross, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame” (Colossians 2:15).
The decisive weapon the demons had against us was unforgiven sin, but when Jesus spilled his own blood in our place, to forgive our sins, he freed us from captivity. He redeemed us from Satan and the record of debt and legal demands against us.Forgiveness: To Restore Our Best Relationship
These precious themes, of course, overlap. We’ve already seen the importance of forgiveness, but Ephesians 2:13 puts it at the fore: “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” At the heart of this “bringing near” is the restoration of humanity with the divine. On the individual level, it’s the creation in Christ of personal access to and a relationship with God that we, born into sin, never could have secured. On the corporate level, it’s the restoration in Christ of the relationship with God for which we were made.
Our sin and rebellion against God has put distance between us and him. In his old-covenant grace, he drew near to his covenant people called Israel. But now, in the new covenant, he draws near not to a particular ethnic people, but to all who receive his Son in faith, no matter who they are or how far they had run. In fact, the phrase “brought near by the blood of Christ” gets at the heart of what each of these divine gifts in Jesus’s blood does for us: it brings us to God. There may be no better summary of what we’ve seen so far about the power of Jesus’s blood than 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”Pacification: To Make Peace with God Himself
Finally, the God-centered aim of the effects of Jesus’s blood is confirmed in its peace-making between God and his people. In Christ, God reconciles his people “to himself . . . making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19–20). That he shed his blood on the cross has been implicit in each instance, but here Paul makes it plain. It is “the blood of his cross” that makes peace between God and man. He made peace with an instrument of intentional and horrific torture and execution.
Jesus did not shed his blood by accident. This was no random death. Tragic as it was, it was deliberate and voluntary. He was executed unjustly, and his blood was spilled on purpose at the cross, both by sinful men and the holy God-man. They took his life, and he gave it. In doing so, he absorbed the righteous wrath of God, granted us his full legal acceptance, purchased our true freedom, restored our most important relationship, and made peace for us with God himself. This is how, as Paul says elsewhere, he secured “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).Precious Blood
Following the trial of blood in Paul’s letters, we begin to see an ocean of grace in that last line of the familiar chorus: There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r / In the precious blood of the Lamb. Precious, indeed.
That pairing of precious with Jesus’s blood comes from the apostle Peter:
You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18–19)
It is fitting to sing of his blood and, in doing so, celebrate all the riches represented by it. When we add precious in that final line, we’re not just adding two additional syllables to make the cadence work with the tune. His blood is truly precious to us. Infinitely valuable. Because Christ himself, and God himself in him, is precious to us. And because the blood of Christ, more precious than any other means, fulfills our deepest aches and longings in God, not just temporarily but finally and forever.
We go from a rebel against the King to a child of the King. God’s attitude toward us completely changes. But does he still get angry at us when we sin?
We need friends like we need air, food, and shelter. We may survive a few more years without friendship, but we will not truly live — now or forever — without finding a good friend.
That basic emotional (and spiritual) need runs, like a Randy Newman soundtrack, under every frame of animation in the Toy Story series. Now Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toy chest have returned (with some new friends), almost a quarter century from the day we met them in the first Pixar film back in 1995. The fourth installment in the beloved series (which some of us feared because we didn’t want them to ruin what we loved about the first three) is actually really good.
What makes Toy Story 4 successful (no spoilers here!) is what has made them all successful. Pixar makes films that wrestle with the complexities of life that humans wrestle with, making us think, laugh, and inevitably cry. Toy Story 4 is no different, wading through sorrows only adults have known, while capturing the heart and imagination of children. I was a wide-eyed 9-year-old the first time I heard Buzz say, “To infinity and beyond!” This weekend, I took my own family. I now see (and feel) the layers of storytelling, and yet I realize I also somehow see less than my 3-year-old.
All of the important characters — a pull-string cowboy, a talking space ranger with built-in laser, a Little Bo-Peep doll, and a dozen others — are made of manufactured plastic, and yet they often feel more human than the flesh and blood we interact with each day. They wrestle honestly with their purpose and identity. They risk, and fail, and risk again. They experience anxiety and pain through life changes. They sacrifice. They make new friends, and they say goodbye.
Friendships make the movies — and friendships make (or break) our lives — because God made us to love and be loved.Life Is About Friendship
Woody has marshaled this toy story all along, from that first staff meeting during the dreaded birthday party (the day he met Buzz Lightyear), through harrowing adventures at Pizza Planet, Al’s Toy Barn, and Sunnyside Daycare, to the day they said goodbye to Andy and met their new owner, Bonnie. Woody leads as a friend, the very best of friends — first to Andy, then to Bonnie, and to the many toys in between (including a skittish, insecure, and needy spork, who’s introduced in the new film).
Woody never abandons a friend in need, and he never leaves a friend behind. The pull-string sheriff stands out, again and again, for his selflessness, often putting himself on the line for others. Others may be smarter, bigger, and stronger than he is, but there’s no friend like our cowboy. We love Woody because we all need Woody. We all feel how closely friendship sits to the heart of humanity. And friendship sits close to the heart of humanity because of God.
It was God who said, at the very beginning, that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Then, at the fullness of time, God sent his own Son into the world, not only to be a friend (John 15:13), but to make and have friends (Mark 3:13–14). Jesus befriended the lowly and despised in society (Matthew 11:19). He shared the deepest intimacy with twelve disciples, and especially Peter, James, and John (Mark 5:37; Matthew 17:1; Matthew 26:37). Those three saw him lifted high on the Mount of Transfiguration, and they watched him kneel down to plead with the Father the night he was betrayed. And then, most remarkably, Christ himself turns not only to his twelve, but to us all, and says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14–15). Even before God, in the flesh, made friends, he knew a profound and mysterious kind of friendship within the eternal Godhead — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever loving and being loved by one another.
The Christian gospel is that God himself is our friend in Christ — and he calls us to be faithful friends. Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Friendship, ordinary as it may sound, is not peripheral or supplementary to reality but rests near the core of who we are and why we exist.
In his best moments, Woody has been a whisper of the friend we have in heaven and a faint replica of the love with which we’re called to love our friends on earth.Life Is (Not) About Friendship
Yet, for all our admiration of how Woody loves his friends, he’s a complicated cowboy. He oscillates in the films, sometimes wildly, sometimes indiscernibly, between risking himself for others and doing whatever necessary to be the most loved. He often strives to find himself — his identity, his purpose, his worth — in the adoring eyes of a child. Isn’t that, after all, what a toy was made for?
As we watch the films, we get lost in the blurriness between loving others at great cost and simply hazarding himself to be loved. Where does loyalty end and vanity begin — in Woody, yes, but also in us? Can we discern Christlike love from simply loving to be loved? In marriage, and now parenting, I have felt this tension in myself far more than I ever had before. Am I really dying to myself to lift others up, or just trying to lift myself up? The distinction can make friendship subtly dangerous.
Followers of Christ are not at all shy about the depth and beauty of real friendship. The apostle Paul writes in one place to his converts, “My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1; see also 1:7–8). But as joyfully, sacrificially, and affectionately invested as Paul can be, he remains remarkably free from those he loves and serves. He says elsewhere, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). The beauty of true friendship, godly friendship, Christ-exalting friendship is in the seeming contradictions — immense affection and consistent correction, real dependence and yet freedom from one another, great love and yet courageous truth.
The danger for Woody, or Paul, or you and me, is in letting our friendships define us. Do you have worth and purpose apart from what your spouse thinks — or your children, or your coworkers, or your friends? We were made for friendship, but not only for friendship. When our friends become our life, it is only a matter of time until they ruin us, either in this life or when they die. As we enjoy friendship, and pour out our hearts to one another, we each must be rooted and grounded in Christ — our highest purpose, our deepest joy, our greatest love.
Woody’s greatest joy was being Andy’s favorite toy, which may be just fine as far as toys go. But his animated turmoil and restlessness can serve as a warning to those who long to feel loved. If God’s love for us in Christ does not put our hearts to rest (Matthew 11:28), our friendships become fertile soil for temptation, and eventually for our destruction.Our Friendship Will Never Die
The secret ingredient, however, to Toy Story’s success is the sorrow of goodbyes. The energy in the very first scene of the first movie comes from the fear of having to say goodbye. Will Andy forget us for his new toys? Every significant relationship throughout the series carries the tension of finite and temporary love, of the inevitable farewell.
Woody fears losing Andy over Buzz. Andy fears losing Buzz, and then Woody too. The toys mourn the thought of losing Woody to a toy museum in Tokyo. Then they all fear what will happen when Andy goes off to college. Arguably the most poignant moment (at least so far) was in the incinerator at the garbage dump, while the familiar toys reached out, in their last moments together, and held hands (before being suddenly rescued). Then, Andy’s goodbye. Unsurprisingly, the new film often rehearses the same minor key.
Sorrow seeds the animation’s stunning power because we all are acquainted with grief. We all know the searing pain of loss — or the fear of one day losing a husband or wife, a parent or child, a close friend. And none of us was more acquainted than Christ. He lost every single friend on the road to the cross (Matthew 26:31). When Judas, most painful of all, came to betray him, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matthew 26:50).
However friendships end, whether by life changes, betrayal, or abandonment, even death, they all will end — at least for a time. All but one. When God befriended us in Christ, he befriended us once and for all. When the credits of this creation finally roll, we will meet our Creator, Savior, Groom, and Friend.
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3–4)
This friendship will never, ever die. It will only grow, and deepen, and widen throughout eternity — no restlessness, no uncertainty, no obstacles, no fear. If Christ has called you his friend, you always will have a friend in him. And along with him, a family of blood-bought eternal friends — our favorite fellow toys from all the years. And we’ll never have to say goodbye.
A heavenly mindset will not be lofty and self-righteous, but humble and God-dependent.
I failed as a collegiate athlete. For some years now, I’ve looked back with regret on wasted potential and childhood dreams that were so close to coming true but never did. Why didn’t I work harder? What if I had known what I do today? Why didn’t God allow me to utilize the gifts he gave me? It still bothers me from time to time.
Even if you’ve never spent time on a football field, you may relate. Your passions outpaced your progress; your gifting never realized its full potential. But as you grimace considering the success that never came, has it ever crossed your mind to actually thank God for your failure?Thank God for Failure?
It hadn’t crossed my mind until recently. Lost in a daydream of what could have been, words from Spurgeon sent arrows deep into my fantasy:
There are very few men who can bear success — none can do so unless great grace is given to them! And if, after a little success, you begin to say, “There now, I am somebody. Did I not do that well? These poor old fogies do not know how to do it — I will teach them” — you will have to go into the back rank, brother, you are not yet able to endure success! It is clear that you cannot stand praise.
Without a moment’s hesitation, that success I pined after so long had soured in my mouth. Like Dr. Frankenstein, who obsessed for months over his creation only to shrink in horror the moment the monster animated, I saw my idol with sobriety. The “success” I longed to embrace — for me — was as much the celebrity I longed to embrace. I had a healthy love for the sport, but I had an unhealthy love for my own name, which meant that my budding faith in Christ may not have survived weeds of worldly acclaim without consequence. I’m doubtful that I could have endured the mere seeds of the second temptation Jesus overcame in the wilderness:
The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory. . . . If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” (Luke 4:5–7)
I thanked God for sparing me from my dreams of greatness. In my mediocrity, he protected me. In allowing me to fail, he fathered me. In keeping me from success, he kept me for himself.Children of Babel
Now, some mature souls indeed can bear what Calvin called “the fiery trial of popularity.” And while some can endure it without injury, it seems true enough that there are very few men who can bear success. The fulfillment of our earthly dreams, the praise we still secretly hope for, the recognition we’ve come to trust might make us into somebody, could, if we actually received it, arouse a nightmare. Success hides its price, and some of us live chasing the flame.
Many since Babel have been trying to “make a name for [themselves]” (Genesis 11:4). They harbor selfish ambition and live for what Paul termed “empty glory” (Philippians 2:3, my translation). This is dangerous because Jesus himself asked, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Man cannot serve two glories. Some, John tells us, even believed in Jesus’s miracles but did not confess him, because “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42–43). They chose to sit comfortably in the synagogue rather than walk with God incarnate. To the hypocrites who advertised their fasting with disfigured faces, sounded trumpets when they gave, and prayed long prayers on street corners in order to be seen by others, Jesus said, “I do not receive glory from men” (John 5:41 NASB).
Now, this is not to confuse carnal success with spiritual fruitfulness. We pray to influence souls, fight sin, proclaim Christ, and live for God’s glory in our families, callings, and careers. He has promised those things. Rather, we renounce the visibility of success — the longing to not only achieve great things by God’s strength, but to ensure that everyone else knows we’ve achieved great things. The obsession to have our faults forgotten and our triumphs published. The temptation to pray blasphemously in our hearts, “I wish them all to be where I am to see my glory.”You Cannot Bear Success Alone
God must fortify us against the sharp edges of success.
Paul teaches that he needed to be strengthened by Christ to endure the bad and the good. We need God to walk us through the valleys and guide us safely on the mountaintops. “I know how to be brought low,” he said, “and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13).
All things includes the good. The apostle needed Christ to stay content in Christ when life went horribly wrong, and when it went surprisingly well. Verse 13, as the Christian athlete’s favorite verse, speaks not as much to Christ strengthening him to hoist the trophy up in victory, but more to Christ strengthening him not to bring that trophy and applause down into his heart and make them his christ. We need divine strength to trudge through the wilderness, and also to eat our fill in Jerusalem. If we have not learned this, then our abounding — and the praise that comes with it — becomes unsafe.Fed to Worms
Consider the contrast between Peter, Paul, and Barnabas — men who learned this secret — and Herod, who did not.
When Cornelius bent low to worship a mere human, Peter grabbed him, lifted him up immediately, and said, “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:24–26). When Paul and Barnabas healed a paralytic man in Lystra in Acts 14, the people proclaimed, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11). Once Paul and Barnabas heard this and discovered that they planned to offer sacrifices to them, the two men
tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (Acts 14:14–15)
These esteemed men of God shunned Satan’s original temptation: to be like God — if only in the eyes of men.
Herod did otherwise.
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21–23)
Three could bear to be used of God and not seek to rob him of glory. The other died of worms.Not to Us
In college, I had not yet learned how to abound. The success I longed for endangered my soul.
I was not like William Wilberforce, who, upon the passing of his bill to abolish the British slave trade — which he spent his life on — marked the momentous victory by meditating on a single verse.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! (Psalm 115:1)
He was branded with this verse. God seared it onto his labor and calling. And in time, he knew how to abound. This verse is the banner over the man or woman who has learned Paul’s secret: “Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory!” And should we fail to get noticed while living for God’s glory, we count it joy that God sees us and spares us from the dangers of praise.Lord, Spare Me Infectious Success
Consider afresh what we have in Christ. We are sons and daughters of God. What else do we need? Let that free you. Christ is yours. Heaven is yours. Eternal glory will soon be yours.
Rejoice not that you have done great things, and do not lose sleep that no trophies collect dust on your banister. Rather, rejoice that your name is written in heaven. Let us be content decreasing in this world that he might increase, content ourselves walking the path of the nameless donkey that carried the Son into Jerusalem. We are freed to be no-ones on earth because we are known in heaven.
May God make us bold enough to pray,
Lord, spare me from the success that would threaten to undo me. Not all victories are good victories; not all triumphs will lead me home. Keep me from those achievements that would puff me up, those accomplishments that would tempt me to forget you.
You’ve taught me to pray, “Lead me not into temptation” — how slow I’ve been to realize the wisdom in all that might mean. But now, seeing my goals and hopes in proper scope, I ask you to do what is best, even if that means the death of my dreams. Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory, that your steadfast love and faithfulness might be put on display.
Tears, crying, and weeping are all a proper response to the God-ordained sorrow and pain we face. Just because God is sovereign doesn’t mean we ignore our pain.